Tunisia

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Introduction to Tunisia

Tunisia's list of attractions would do justice to a country twice its size. From the Roman-era hot springs at Hamman Mellegue to the space-age sets of Star Wars (parts of which were filmed at Matmata), its lush-to-lunar landscapes have seen more action than the New World nations combined.

Spend a few days here and you'll agree: daydreaming at the famous Roman ruins of Carthage and El-Jem is almost as good as stepping into Virgil's Aeneid and knocking one back with Dido, while a day's dawdling on the north coast's beaches will leave you wondering why Hannibal ever left.

Tourism remains very low-key throughout most of the country, though if you're looking for resort life you can find that too. Be it Tunis' French-Arab culture collage or the Sahara's unthinkably massive expanse, you're going to be impressed with what you find in Tunisia. After all, they've had 3000 years to prepare for your visit.

Full country name: Republic of Tunisia

Area: 163,610 sq km

Population: 9.92 million

Capital City: Tunis

People: 98% Arab-Berber, 2% European and Jewish

Language: Arabic, French, English, German

Religion: Islam, Christianity, Judaism

Government: republic

Head of State: President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali

Head of Government: Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi

GDP: US$67 billion

GDP per capita: US$6,800

Annual Growth: 5%

Inflation: 2.5%

Major Industries: Petroleum, mining, tourism, textiles, footwear, food, beverages

Major Trading Partners: EU, North African countries, Asia, US

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Most visitors do not require visas for stays of up to three or four months. Israeli nationals are not allowed into the country. Australians and South Africans can buy a three-month visa at the airport on arrival. It can take a little while though.

Health risks: diphtheria (Vaccination against this serious bacterial disease is very effective, so you don't need to worry if you've been properly immunised against it. It mainly affects children and causes a cold-like illness that is associated with a severe sore throat. A thick white membrane forms at the back of the throat which can suffocate you, but what makes this a really nasty disease is that the diphtheria bug produces a very powerful poison which can cause paralysis and affect the heart. Otherwise healthy people can carry the bug in their throats, and it's transmitted by sneezing and coughing. It can also cause a skin ulcer known as a veldt sore. Vaccination protects against this form too. Treatment is with penicillin and a diphtheria antitoxin, if necessary), typhoid (Also known as enteric fever, Typhoid is transmitted via food and water, and symptomless carriers, especially when they're working as food handlers, are an important source of infection. Typhoid is caused by a type of salmonella bacteria, Salmonella typhi. Paratyphoid is a similar but milder disease. The symptoms are variable, but you almost always get a fever and headache to start with, which initially feels very similar to flu, with aches and pains, loss of appetite and general malaise. Typhoid may be confused with malaria. The fever gradually rises during a week. Characteristically your pulse is relatively slow for someone with a fever. Other symptoms you may have are constipation or diarrhoea and stomach pains. You may feel worse in the second week, with a constant fever and sometimes a red skin rash. Other symptoms you may have are severe headache, sore throat and jaundice. Serious complications occur in about one in 10 cases, including, most commonly, damage to the gut wall with subsequent leakage of the gut contents into the abdominal cavity. Seek medical help for any fever (38C and higher) that does not improve after 48 hours. Typhoid is a serious disease and is not something you should consider self-treating. Re-hydration therapy is important if diarrhoea has been a feature of the illness, but antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment), hepatitis (Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures), yellow fever (A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travellers over 1 year of age coming from infected areas)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC + 1

Dialling Code: 216

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The Islamic (or Hjira) calendar is a full 11 days shorter than the Gregorian (Western) calendar, so public holidays and festivals fall 11 days earlier each year. Ras as-Sana is the Islamic celebration of the new year. Moulid an-Nabi celebrates the prophet Mohammed's birthday. These celebrations include parades in the city streets with lights, feasts, drummers and special sweets. Ramadan is celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, commemorating the month when the Quran was revealed to Mohammed. Out of deference, the faithful take neither food nor water until after sunset each day. At the end of Ramadan (Eid al-Fitr), the fasting breaks with much celebration and gaiety.

Eid al-Adha is the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca, which each Muslim is expected to make at least once in their lifetime. Streets are decorated with coloured lights and children play in their best clothes. The ritual of Mahmal is performed in each village - passing pilgrims are given carpets and shrouds to take on their journey.

In terms of secular festivals, July and August are the months to remember. The main event on the Tunis calendar is the Carthage International Festival, which fills those months with music, dance and theatre performances at Carthage's heavily restored Roman theatre. The El-Jem International Symphonic Music Festival is held every July. The Dougga Festival of classical drama also takes place in July and August in - you guessed it - Dougga. After the summer heat dies down, the biennial Carthage International Film Festival (concentrating on Middle Eastern and African cinema) takes place in October in odd-numbered years.

Public Holidays

1 January - New Year's Day

20 March - Independence Day

21 March - Youth Day

9 April - Martyr's Day

1 May - Labour Day

25 July - Republic Day

3 August - Public Holiday

13 August - Women's Day

15 October - Evacuation Day

7 November - Anniversary of Ben Ali's Accession.

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Best time to Visit

Low season in Tunisia is from January to February, when hotel rates are down and the weather's cool and rainy. During the sweaty high season, from June to August, expect hotel rates to be up, car rentals to be scarce and the markets and museums to teem with foreign visitors. You won't want to do much strenuous activity during these months.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Tunisian Dinar

Meals

Budget: TD3-7

Mid-range: TD7-15

High: TD15-40

Deluxe: TD40+

Lodging

Budget: TD7-15

Mid-range: TD15-30

High: TD30-55

Deluxe: TD55+

Tunisia is not a budget buster, especially for Western visitors. It's usually possible to get a clean room for about US$5 per person, and main dishes in local restaurants are often in the US$4 range. If you're fighting to keep costs down, you can get by on around US$15 a day, but you'll have more fun with a budget of about US$25 and can live like royalty for upwards of US$40.

American Express, Visa and Thomas Cook travellers cheques are widely accepted, and the US dollar is a good currency to carry them in. ATMs are found in almost every town large enough to support a bank and certainly in all the tourist areas. Credit cards are accepted in souvenir shops and upmarket hotels and restaurants. Tipping is not a requirement, but most local caf and restaurant patrons toss a few coins on the table as they leave, and waiters in tourist restaurants are accustomed to tips of around 10%. Handicrafts are about the only items you'll be able to haggle over in Tunisia.

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Attractions

Tunis

Compared with most mega-cities elsewhere in the world, Tunis comes across as little more than a large country town. The city centre is compact and easy to navigate, with almost everything important to travellers within the medina and the compact ville nouvelle.

The medina is the historical and cultural heart of modern Tunis and a great place to get a feel for life in the city. Built during the 7th century AD, it lost its status as Tunis Central when the French took over and raised their ville nouvelle around the turn of the 20th century.

Cap Bon Peninsula

This fertile peninsula stretches out into the Mediterranean Sea to the north-east of Tunis. Geologists speculate that it once stretched all the way to Sicily, providing a land link to Europe that sank beneath the sea as recently as 30,000 years ago.

Today, Cap Bon - particularly the southeastern beaches around Hammamet and Nabeul - is Tunisia's primary package tour destination. A summer's stroll down the streets of Hammamet is likely to turn up 10 tourists to every local, and the pace never slackens except briefly during the middle of winter.

Carthage

Founded by Phoenicians and home of Hannibal, Carthage was one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. The site retains its natural splendour, with lush vegetation and superb views over the gulf. Highlights are the museum and excavated quarter atop Byrsa Hill, the Antonine baths, the Punic ports, the Roman amphitheatre and the Sanctuary of Tophet.

Despite Carthage's fascinating history and the position of dominance it held in the ancient world, the Romans did such a thorough job demolishing it that the ruins today are something of a disappointment. Most of what remains is of Roman origin. There are six main sights, and the hassle for visitors is that they're spread out over a wide area. To overcome this, hop on the TGM (light rail) line that runs through the middle of the area, but be forewarned: it'll still require a fair amount of hoofing it.

The best place to start is Byrsa Hill, which dominates the area and gives a good view of the whole site from its peak. At its base is the L'Acropolium (Cathedral of St Louis), which is visible for miles around... and is an eyesore of massive proportions. It was built by the French in 1890 and dedicated to the 13th-century saint-king who died on the shores of Carthage in 1270 during the ill-fated 8th Crusade. Though it was deconsecrated and closed for years, its has now been restored and is open to the public. The National Museum is the large white building at the back of the cathedral, and its recently revamped displays are well worth a look. The Punic displays upstairs are especially good.

The Roman amphitheatre on the west side of the Byrsa, a 15-minute walk from the museum, is said to have been one of the largest in the Empire, though little of its grandeur remains today; most of its stones were pinched for other building projects in later centuries. The collection of huge cisterns northeast of the amphitheatre were the main water supply for Carthage during the Roman era - they're now ruined and hardly worth the scramble through prickly pear cactus.

The Antonine Baths are right down on the waterfront and are impressive more for their size and location than for anything else. The Magon Quarter is another archaeological park near the water, a few blocks south of the baths. Recent excavations have revealed an interesting residential area.

The chilling Sanctuary of Tophet created a great deal of excitement when it was first excavated in 1921 and has gone on to elicit a fair amount of 'excited' prose since then. The Tophet was a sacrificial site with an associated burial ground, where the children of Carthaginian nobles were killed and roasted to appease the deities Baal Hammon and Tanit.

Dougga

The Roman ruins at Dougga, 105km (65mi) southwest of Tunis, rate as the most spectacular and best preserved in the country. They occupy a commanding position on the edge of the Tebersouk Mountains, overlooking the fertile wheat-growing valley of the Oued Kalled. The site was occupied until the early 1950s, when the residents were moved to help preserve the ruins.

There's a lot to see at Dougga, and unless you're operating on a super-tight budget it's best to hire a licensed guide. The first monument you'll see is the 3500-seat theatre, which was built into the hillside in 188 AD by one of the city's wealthy residents. It has been extensively renovated and makes a spectacular setting for floodlit performances of classical drama during the Dougga Festival in July and August. Just past the theatre, a track leads to the Temple of Saturn, erected on the site of an earlier temple to Baal Hammon. Southwest of the theatre, a winding street leads down to the Square of the Winds, where the paving is laid out like an enormous compass and lists the names of the 12 winds. Another temple borders the square to the north, while the market and capitol lie to the south and west, respectively.

The capitol is a remarkable monument - one of the finest in Tunisia - that was raised in 166 AD. Six enormous, fluted columns support the portico, which is some 8m (25ft) above the ground. The frieze has an unusually unweathered carving depicting the emperor Antonius Pius being carried off in an eagle's claws. Inside was an enormous statue of Jupiter, fragments of which are now in the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

El-Jem

There are few sights in Tunisia more arresting than El-Jem, with its well-preserved, ancient colosseum (almost as big as its counterpart in Rome) that dwarfs the matchbox buildings of the modern town. Built on a plateau halfway between Sousse and Sfax, some 210km (130mi) south of Tunis, El-Jem can be seen from miles around, completely dominating the area.

The colosseum, believed to have been built between 230 and 238 AD, has been used as a defensive position many times in its history. It suffered badly in the 17th century, when the troops of Mohammed Bey blasted a hole in the western wall to flush out local tribesmen who had rebelled against taxation demands. The breach was further widened during an 1850 rebellion, but thankfully the modern emphasis is on preservation and the site is part of the UN's World Heritage List.

Its seating capacity has been estimated at 30,000 (considerably more than the population of the town itself), making it one of the most impressive Roman monuments in Africa. You can still climb up to the top tiers of seating and gaze down on the arena. It's also possible to explore the two long underground passageways that once held the animals, gladiators and other unfortunates destined for the arena.

Matmata

Nowhere else in Tunisia is package tourism so totally over the top as it is in the small village of Matmata, 400km (250mi) south of Tunis on the southeastern coast. The pit houses of this troglodyte settlement have proven irresistible fare for the tour buses.

The buses arrive at 9am like a tidal wave and don't leave until the late afternoon. They are soon replaced by 4WD groups who use the town as an overnight stop on their desert safaris. Needless to say, the residents are not thrilled with the deluge.

Sidi Bou Sad

Sidi Bou Sad is a pretty whitewashed village set on a cliff above the Gulf of Tunis, about 10km (6mi) northeast of the capital. It's a place to stroll among narrow cobbled streets with old stone steps. Its gleaming walls are dotted with the trademark local ornate window grills painted a deep blue.

Colourful arched doorways that open onto courtyards dappled with geraniums and bougainvillea. You can be forgiven if you begin to think you've stumbled onto a little Greek island. The hub of activity in town is the small, cobbled main square.

Sousse

Sousse is Tunisia's third-largest city and a major port. It's also the most popular tourist destination - the long beach stretching north of town to the purpose-built tourist enclave of Port el-Kantaoui is the main drawcard. However, Sousse has more going for it than a string of resort hotels.

The walled medina holds most of the city's attractions. The walls are impressive, stretching 2.25km (1.4mi) at a height of 8m (26ft) and fortified with a series of solid square turrets. The ribat, a small square fort built in the 8th century, features a round watchtower that can be climbed.

Tozeur

Tozeur is one of the most popular travellers' stops in Tunisia, and has been so since Capsian times (from 8000 BC). Its principal attractions are a labyrinthine old town, a spectacular museum and its enormous palmeraie (palm forest) on the northern edge of the Chott el-Jerid.

Located some 435km (270mi) southwest of Tunis, half the thrill is just getting there: the road from Kebili crosses the chott (dried salt marsh) by causeway. The city's delightful old quarter, Ouled el-Hadef, was built in the 14th century AD to house a merchant clan.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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